I love the flexible nature of the Internet. If this was a print publication, I wouldn’t have been able to mutate this topic so quickly. Anyway, in discussing articles for BBGeeks, we decided that GPS — that is, global positioning system — should be one of the topics we cover. And so we decided to talk about what you can do with GPS on your BlackBerry. I started on my own device, and immediately I realized something was afoot.
Then I remembered a tidbit I had heard a while ago: Verizon sort of, um, cripples the GPS feature on its phones. That is, unless you pay them $10 per month, or $3 per use, for their VZNavigator. So right from the beginning, I was hampered. The idea was to start with the BlackBerry Maps program, which comes installed on new devices.
But without the ability to explore the program myself, what was I to do?
The history of GPS
Like many satellite-based civilian services, GPS started as a Defense Department project back in the 60s and 70s. You can imagine the military uses for a global positioning system. And so the project developed along those lines, with really no intention of opening up the service to civilians.
The project really launched in 1978, when we put the first of 24 NAVSTAR satellites into orbit. A second round was launched in 1989, though there was a major development. In 1983, a Korean civilian airliner was shot down over Soviet airspace. President Reagan used this incident to declare that GPS, once fully operational, would be available free of charge to anyone in the world.
GPS became fully operational in 1995, though we didn’t see civilians immediately adopting it en masse. Eventually, we started to see it implemented in cars…for free. Yes, you could sign up for a subscription service to get updated points of interest (gas stations, restaurants, convenience stores, etc.), but for the basic turn-by-turn directions, it didn’t cost you a dime. And if you have a GPS installed by the factory in your car, it still won’t.
However, we’ve seen an increase in GPS units installed in cell phone lately. This is related to the FCC’s mandate that carriers must have location-based technology to assist with 911 calls. Many recent models of BlackBerry have come with a spiffy GPS unit right from the factory.
Which models have GPS?
The first step in this GPS mess is to figure out which BlackBerry models actually have a GPS unit in them. Only then can we begin to have a discussion about the viability of GPS and GPS services. T-Mobile: No current T-Mobile BlackBerry has an embedded GPS chip. Sprint: Pearl 8130, 7130e, 8730e, 8830, 7100i Verizon: Pearl 810, 8830 AT&T: Curve 8310, 8820 But that’s not all. After you find the BlackBerry you want with the carrier of your choice, you have to factor in how carriers offer the GPS service.
Sprint: Sprint Navigator comes included with your BlackBerry plan. You know, for no additional charge. (This might be different for business accounts.) Verizon: In order to utilize the GPS capabilities of your BlackBerry, you need to purchase the VZNavigator. This is available for a $9.99 monthly subscription fee, or for $2.99 per 24-hour period. AT&T: No free GPS here. You’ll have to add on AT&T’s TeleNav program, which costs $5.99 for 10 routes, or $9.99 for unlimited use.
So it’s not free
Despite President Reagan’s mandate, and President Bush’s subsequent reinforcement of the idea of free GPS in 2004, we’re still seeing carriers holding GPS units hostage. Why would they do that? Simply, because there’s room for profit somewhere in there, and the cell companies don’t want to let that opportunity pass. Yes, GPS is supposed to be free, but no one said anything about GPS units. That’s how companies like Garmin are able to sell you GPS units, starting at over $200.
They can’t sell you basic GPS service — it’s mandated to be free. But they can charge you for the unit. So where does this leave cell carriers? They’re installing these units inside cell phones, so there is no extra hardware to sell you. There’s no lump sum you pay up front for GPS. Hence, subscription services. In essence, they’re not really charging you for the turn-by-turn direction service — they’re charging you to utilize the GPS unit in your phone.
A TiVo analogy
A few years ago, TiVo was all the craze. I remember wanting one pretty badly, even though I don’t watch all that much TV. Because DVR wasn’t in the mainstream yet, TiVo was able to get away with selling you a DVR box, and on top of that selling you their subscription service, which allows you to view schedules and pick your recordings. Of course, cable companies caught onto this. They already rented their customers cable boxes, so adding a DVR to said box wasn’t a huge deal.
They charged a few dollars extra a month to pay for the DVR. And voila! They completely undercut TiVo. Cell phone companies have the same advantage here. Everyone (figuratively speaking) has a cell phone. If these companies install GPS units on cell phones, well, there’s a far lesser need for expensive units like those of Garmin. It would be like having a TiVo box as well as a DVR box from your cable company. Completely redundant.
So this is why we’re seeing cell companies charge monthly rates for use of the GPS units in their phones. Instead of paying a lump sum up front for the unit, as is the case with Garmin and TiVo, you only pay a monthly subscription rate, like you do with a DVR from your cable company. Of course, the lump sum might work out for some people, since monthly subscriptions are a perpetual fee. However, Garmin and TiVo also have subscription features.
And unless you subscribe to these, you’re not getting the full experience. What you’re seeing cell companies do with GPS and cable companies do with DVR is to only charge the monthly fee while giving you more features than you get with a base TiVo or Garmin unit.
So what CAN you do with GPS on your BlackBerry?
Once you’re subscribed to a GPS service through your cell carrier, the world of GPS is open to you. You can utilize it for turn-by-turn directions, or to give you ideas on where to go in your current area. There are actually a ton of features of GPS that you can use through your cell carrier.
So many, in fact, that we’ll cover them, carrier-by-carrier, in a future column. We’re seeing a real rise in the usage of location-based services. Our cell phones are going to be the main medium in which we’re going to see these developments.